Handle with Care: Protecting Sensitive Data in Microsoft SharePoint, Collaboration Tools and File Share Applications

Larry Ponemon

With the plethora of collaboration and file sharing tools in the workplace, the risk of data leakage due to insecure sharing of information among employees and third parties is growing. As discussed in this report, Handle with Care: Protecting Sensitive Data in Microsoft SharePoint, Collaboration Tools and File Share Applications in US,UK and German Organizations, sponsored by Metalogix, although security concerns about the use of collaboration and file sharing tools is high, companies are not taking sufficient steps to protect their sensitive data.

Without appropriate technologies, data breaches in the SharePoint environment can go undetected. Almost half of respondents (49 percent) say their organizations have had at least one data breach in the SharePoint environment in the past two years. However, 22 percent of respondents believe it was likely their organization had a data breach but are not able to know this with certainty.

This research reveals that employees on a frequent basis are accidentally sharing files or documents with other employees or third parties not authorized to receive them. Employees are also receiving content they should not have access to or they are not deleting confidential materials as required by policies.

Although respondents express concern about the risk of a data breach stemming from use of collaboration and file sharing technologies, they are struggling to meet the challenge using their existing security processes and tools. Seventy percent of organizations believe that if their organization had a data breach involving the loss or theft of confidential information in the SharePoint environment they would only be able to detect it some of the time or not at all.

Most companies are not taking steps to reduce the risk through training programs, routine security audits or deployment of specific technologies that discover where sensitive or confidential information resides and how it is used. The survey found that important data governance practices that are not in place for collaboration applications in general, and that when it comes to SharePoint specifically, security tools and practices are even more lacking.

We surveyed 1,403 individuals in the US, UK and Germany who are involved in ensuring the protection of confidential information. Respondents work in IT and IT security as well as lines of business in a variety of industries. On average, respondents say they spend approximately 28 percent of their time in the protection of documents and other content assets in SharePoint.

All companies represented in this research use SharePoint solutions for sharing confidential documents and files. Other solutions include Office 365 and cloud-based services such as Dropbox and/or Box. Other means of collaboration include shared network drives and other file sync and share solutions.

Key findings

In this section, we provide a deeper analysis of the findings. The complete audited findings are presented in the Appendix of this report. The report is organized according to the following seven topics:

  1. Sensitive content within the organization
  2. Risky user behavior
  3. Lack of collaboration in security and governance practices and tools
  4. Challenges in controlling risks in the SharePoint environment
  5. Country differences: United States, United Kingdom and Germany
  6. Industry differences
  7. Conclusions and recommendations


  1. Sensitive content within the organization

 Not knowing who is sharing sensitive data or where such data is stored increases the likelihood of a breach — 63 percent say the inability to know where sensitive data resides represents a serious security risk. Further, only 34 percent of respondents say their organizations have clear visibility into what file sharing applications are being used by employees at work.

These findings demonstrate the need for automated technologies that enable organizations to discover and classify sensitive or confidential information and monitor how it is used.

  1. Risky user behavior

Employee and third party use of SharePoint are greater security concerns than external threat agents.

The pressure to be productive sometimes causes individuals to put sensitive data at risk. Negligent employees are inviting data loss or theft by accidentally exposing information (73 percent of respondents). Eighty-four percent of respondents are worried about third parties having access to data they should not see. Based on the findings, third parties and negligent insiders are more worrisome than external hackers (28 percent of respondents) or malicious employees (19 percent of respondents).

  1. Lack of collaboration in security and governance practices and tools

 Despite the volume of sensitive content stored in collaboration and file sharing tools and the acknowledgement of risky employee behavior, respondents do not have sufficient policies or security tools in place to prevent either accidental exposure or intentional misuse of information.

Only 28 percent of respondents rate their organizations as being highly effective in keeping confidential documents secure in the SharePoint environment. Consequently, as reported previously, almost half of respondents (49 percent) report their companies had at least one data breach resulting from the loss or theft of confidential information in the SharePoint environment in the past two years and 22 percent of respondents say they are not aware of a data breach, but one is likely to have occurred.

  1. Challenges in controlling risks in the SharePoint environment

 If companies are aware of the risk of data breaches due to insecure collaboration and they don’t believe their current approaches are sufficient to keeping content safe, what is preventing them from deploying more effective security solutions?

 A lack of integration is the biggest challenge to reducing SharePoint security risks.

 Seventy-nine percent of respondents say they do not have the right tools in place to support the safe use of sensitive or confidential information assets in SharePoint. Either they believe their tools are only somewhat effective (41 percent of respondents), not effective (49 percent of respondents) or they do not have enough information to know (10 percent of respondents).

  1. Country differences: United States, United Kingdom and Germany

The study identifies clear differences in attitudes and behaviors related to file sharing and collaboration tools among respondents in the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK) and Germany. As shown in Figure 17, German respondents are less concerned than US or UK respondents about the potential for security breaches in their SharePoint environment, regardless of whether the source of the breach is internal or external to their organization.

  1. Industry differences

 In addition to differences among respondents in the different countries represented in this research, we provide an analysis of respondents in nine different industries in the study. Two industries of particular interest are financial services and health and pharma.

Consistent with previous studies conducted by Ponemon Institute, financial services seems to be most effective in dealing with security vulnerabilities. Awareness of information security concerns is consistently high in the financial services industry. A possible reason is the myriad of compliance requirements also requires financial services companies to invest in security tools and develop governance processes at a higher rate than other industries. Typically, financial services companies employ a larger security team with a more diverse set of skills.


7. Conclusions and recommendations

 Despite evidence of data breaches and the increasing pressure from regulators, customers and shareholders to protect confidential data from accidental exposure, companies in this study do not seem to be taking security in file sharing and collaboration environments as seriously as they should.

Following are recommendations for creating a more secure environment for sensitive content.

  • Use automated tools to improve the organization’s ability to discover where sensitive or confidential information resides within SharePoint, file sharing and collaboration tools.


  • Instead of relying upon document owners to classify sensitive or confidential information, use automated tools to improve the ability to secure data in the SharePoint environment. Assign centralized accountability and responsibility for securing documents and files containing confidential information to the department with the necessary expertise, such as IT security.


  • Be aware that personnel and organizational changes can trigger security vulnerabilities. According to respondents, negligent or malicious behaviors can occur when employees leave the organization or there is downsizing. Consider the use of automated user access history with real time monitoring.


  • Conduct meaningful training programs that specifically address the consequences of negligent or careless file sharing practices. These types of behaviors include keeping documents or files no longer needed, receiving and not deleting files and documents not intended for the recipient, forwarding confidential files or documents to individuals not authorized to receive them, using personal or unauthorized file sharing apps to exchange confidential documents and files in the workplace and sending confidential files or documents to unauthorized individuals outside the organization.


  • Address the risks created by third parties, contractors and temporary workers by monitoring and restricting their access to sensitive or confidential information.


  • Have policies that restrict or limit the sharing of confidential documents and enforce those policies, especially to reduce the risks associated with allowing workers to have confidential information on their home computers and devices.


  • Conduct audits to determine the security vulnerabilities and non-compliance of the sharing and accessing practices of employees and third parties. The research proves the ability of such audits to reveal security vulnerabilities in the protection of confidential documents and files.

Download the full report, with accompanying infographics, at this link.

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